In the grand tapestry of Dallas tragedies, the Burning of Big Tex stands right up there with the filling in of the Deep Ellum tunnel and the cancellation of The Good Guys.
The state fair icon went down on October 19, 2012. (A moment of silence, if you will.) It was the last Friday before the fair's final weekend, a sunny day like any other. The voice of (the since coldly dismissed) Bill Bragg could be heard welcoming early fairgoers with his cheery "Howdy, folks!"
Suddenly black smoke emerged from under Big Tex's hat. A very neatly-defined - too neatly defined? - ring of fire sprouted around his neck like a coral necklace. His head burned, then his clothes.
Five minutes later, he was a charred shell. A charred shell that became international news, spawned the obligatory Facebook memorial page, and generated a rather tacky request for funds from the State Fair folks, which netted more than $95,000.
It is nothing less than a miracle that no one was hurt. The fact that the hulking statue resides inside Big Tex Circle was helpful in that regard. In any case, the fair had a bonkers closing weekend, and the world mourned his loss.
If Big Tex's demise was well-documented, his return is already netting the fair scads of PR. On this first day of the fair, what news outlet has not already posted photos of his hurried re-erection? A press conference on Friday gives this dead horse another guaranteed beating. As far as publicity goes, you couldn't have done better if you'd planned it.
Which makes us wonder: Was Big Tex's cremation planned? A number of factors suggest that, yes, Big Tex quite possibly may have been deliberately torched.
1. The oh-so fortuitous timing.
In the media world, the timing of Big Tex's immolation was very very very convenient. It took place at 10 am on a Friday, a time when journalists are traditionally scrambling for something, anything to get them through the day, and are prime bait for press releases and fake news.
"I do think that, for journalists, mid-morning is an optimal time," says Dallas Observer reporter and prodigious online presence Eric Nicholson. "It's about the time people get to work and have gotten bored enough to start cruising news sites. I read something on [media blog] Jim Romanesko, that the digital managing editor at the Wall Street Journal sent out a memo outlining when staffers should post stuff. The general idea was that traffic peaks mid- to late-morning, like 10-ish."
Dallas publicist Lindsey Miller says there are two ideal days to post news. "Monday mornings are good, and Fridays are a great day," she says. "People will read it all weekend long."
2. The fried food PR bonanza peaked in 2010.
The State Fair can be broken into two eras: Pre-fried food awards, circa 2004, when the fair was a quaint, doddering, country-people thing that had pigs and rides and corny dogs. Then came the fried Twinkie, social media, and broken attendance records.
"After the 2004 Fair, fair president Errol McKoy brought a group of us together and said, 'We’re getting a lot of buzz about fried Twinkies and Oreos and candy bars. What can we do to get even more interest in food?'" said spokeswoman Sue Gooding in 2011.
And then bam: 2006's notorious Fried Coke. Followed by 2008's Fried Bacon, 2009's Fried Butter, and 2010's Fried Beer. It was good times and lots of press. But by the time 2011's fried bubblegum rolled around, the fried-food fever had begun to cool. And the 2012 winner was, um, it's right on the tip of my tongue, wait, what was it now? Oh right: fried bacon cinnamon roll.
The fair needed a new boost.
3. Journalists are suckers for fires.
Fires are one of journalism's most favoritest news stories. No. 1, it looks pretty. No. 2, it's not going anywhere. A slightly puffy journalist doesn't have to chase after it.
4. The fishy explanation.
Six hours after the fire, State Fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding sent out a statement that the fire started in Big Tex's boots. Meanwhile, State Fair VP Mitchell Glieber said it appeared the fire was started by an electrical short circuit. "I believe there was an electrical short, but that hasn't been confirmed or investigated."
A year later, Gooding is still ambiguous about the source. "The fire report, all it said is that it was an electrical fire with an unspecified source," she says. "They think it started at the base where Big Tex plugged into the power in the ground."
"Lighting an effigy is completely manageable and doable, according to how you do it," says pyrotechnics expert Joe Walker.
For a fire that started at the base of the statue or in his boot, it sure seems convenient that his head was first to burn. But Gooding says that Big Tex acted like a chimney. "The first thing we noticed was smoke coming up out of his collar," she says.
5. The ease of arson.
One of the wondrous things about the Big Tex fire was its efficacy, the way it burned so cleanly, so efficiently. And what a miracle that no one got hurt – unless, of course, you count the unforgettable trauma of witnessing the pyre suffered by a troop of children who were scarfing funnel cakes to celebrate Big Tex's birthday. Their nightmares will never end.
Is it possible to deliberately set a statue on fire? Enter Joe Walker, pyrotechnics expert from Austin ProFx.
"Lighting an effigy is completely manageable and doable, according to how you do it," Walker says. "It depends on how much flammable material is on the inside or outside. It could be started and finished in a matter of minutes."
Cue State Fair spokeswoman Gooding: "The fire started at about 10:05 am and it was about 17-18 minutes from start to end," she says.
6. The stunningly efficient disposal.
One attendee at the fair that day who asks to remain anonymous witnessed the fair's recovery of the "corpse" and marveled at how unnervingly efficient it was.
"I was there the morning it burned down, doing a product demonstration," she says. "Let me start by saying that the experience I'd had was that, to even get a dumpster delivered to where we were was the biggest pain in the ass known to man.
"So I was amazed to see that, within 45 minutes, they had a truck on site and a crane that they used to lower him onto this truck. They had tarps to wrap his burnt body up, and get him secured and tied down. I remember thinking, 'How in the hell did their response team get that done so quick?' I thought they must have some amazing emergency plan for this. But how do you plan for Big Tex catching on fire?"